Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Tech & Science

Is a zebra white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?

Aerial view from a helicopter of a group of Burchell's plains zebras (Equus quagga burchellii), Okavango Delta, Botswana. Source - Diego Deiso. CC SA 4.0.
Aerial view from a helicopter of a group of Burchell's plains zebras (Equus quagga burchellii), Okavango Delta, Botswana. Source - Diego Deiso. CC SA 4.0.

Zebras are iconic for their distinctive black and white stripes, but have you ever wondered whether zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

Zebras are African equines of the genus Equus (the same as horses) and belong to the subspecies Hippotigris. There are three living species, the Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), plains zebra (E. quagga), and the mountain zebra (E. zebra).

While the stripes on every zebra are unique to each individual, the three species each have a different striping pattern. And if this is not enough to confuse you, for some zebras, the darker portions of their hide are black, whereas others have browner coloring, and some have stripes only on their bodies but not on their legs.

It is worth mentioning that there was a fourth species of zebra called the quagga (E. quagga quagga). This zebra was endemic to South Africa until it was hunted to extinction in the late 19th century by European settler-colonists. 

Quagga (Equus quagga quagga) is an extinct subspecies of zebra. Mare, London, Regent’s Park ZOO. The image is dated 1870 and is the only specimen photographed alive. Source – Biodiversity Heritage Library/Frederick York (d. 1903). Public Domain

It was long thought to be a distinct species, but early genetic studies have supported it being a subspecies of plains zebra. It had minimal striping on its head, mane, and neck, according to The Quagga Project

But we still need an answer to the question

Despite all the differences in stripe patterns, all zebras have the same skin color: black, said Tim Caro, a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of California, Davis.

Even still, we have to look at the zebra’s melanocytes, or the cells that produce pigment for their fur, to decide if a zebra is white with black stripes or vice versa. And there are also the variations we see genetically.

So while zebras have black skin, different developmental processes determine their fur color, just like a light-skinned person can have dark hair, Caro said. He adds that zebras actually have more light-colored hair than dark, especially on their bellies.

A herd of Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), also known as the imperial zebra. This is the largest living wild equid and the most threatened of the three species of zebra. Source – “Daniel Fafard (Dreamdan)” CC SA 3.0.

This could lead us to believe that zebras are white with black stripes, right? But that is not the case, according to a 2005 review in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Every piece of hair on a zebra – both light and dark – grows from a follicle filled with melanocyte cells. These cells produce a pigment called melanin that determines the color of hair and skin.

So, a lot of melanin leads to darker colors, like dark brown or black, while less melanin leads to lighter colors, such as hazel or blond, Live Science previously reported

Zebras’ black fur is chock-full of melanin, but melanin is absent from white fur, in essence, because the follicles that make up the stripes of white hair have “turned off” melanocytes, meaning they don’t churn out pigment. 

OK, are you ready for the answer? The production of melanin “shuts down during the development of white hair, but not of black hair,” Caro told Live Science in an email.

A harem of cape mountain zebras (Equus zebra). Source – Mountjoy. CC SA 2.0.

In other words, for zebras, the animals’ default state is to produce black hair, making them black with white stripes, according to Brittanica

A study published in 2020 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that African horseflies landed less frequently on horses wearing striped or checked rugs than they did on horses wearing solid-colored rugs. These biting flies can carry diseases that are fatal to zebras.

“There are very few mammals indeed with contrasting stripes like a zebra,” Caro said. “The okapi has similar stripes on the rump, but other than that, no other species has really distinct black and white stripes. My guess is that the fly deterrent function is unique to equids because they are so susceptible to the diseases carried by certain biting flies in Africa.”

Avatar photo
Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

You may also like:

Tech & Science

The truck drives itself, and veteran driver Roger Nordqvist is at the ready only in case of unexpected problems.

Tech & Science

SpaceX on Wednesday postponed the launch of the world's first private lander to the Moon, a mission undertaken by Japanese firm ispace.

Tech & Science

People living with HIV have a higher risk of lung cancer than the general population.


Former FTX Chief Executive Sam Bankman-Fried apologized for the collapse of the firm but said he didn't knowingly commit fraud - Copyright Airbus DS...